Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem)
A 'German' Requiem because Brahms set a text from the Lutheran Bible, rather than the more commonly used liturgical Latin. This was his first major success, the soprano full of tenderness and sorrow prompted by the death of his mother in 1865, the baritone and chorus numbers full of drama.
Ein deutsches Requiem*
Coupled with Schütz: Selig sind die Toten. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen
*Katharine Fuge (sop) *Matthew Brook (bar) Monteverdi Choir; *Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG706 (77’ • DDD • T/t). Recorded live in 2007 & 2008. Buy from Amazon
John Eliot Gardiner first recorded the German Requiem in 1990, one of the first discs with his then newly formed Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. That studio recording was as remarkable for Gardiner’s monumental conception of the work as it was for a certain degree of mannerism – affectation occasionally usurping affection. He returns to the work 18 years later in a live performance from Usher Hall, Edinburgh, presenting what is recognisably a similar interpretation while at the same time demonstrating a root-and-branch rethink of the work’s very sound: a reconsideration of the warp and weft of the fabric from which it is made. This is palpable right from the start: in the viol-like sonorities of the violas; in a fastidiously researched approach to portamento (there’s a corker at the beginning of ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’); and in a recording that is spacious enough (while not approaching the analytical clarity of the Philips disc) to let Brahms’s distinctly Germanic harp-writing glow like a halo across the whole work. Gardiner is acutely aware, too, of the importance to the Requiem’s tinta of Brahms’s finely crafted writing for the brass and timpani.
Of course, the seismic event that occurred roughly equidistant between that earlier recording and the appearance of this one was the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. One becomes aware of the effect on a musician of undergoing the discipline of preparing what amounts to a weekly act of devotion (whether to God or to music, it doesn’t matter), and wonders to what extent this affects his response to a devotional score such as the German Requiem – not only its notes but also text, which is itself an act of devotion, for all Brahms’s agnosticism. One also wonders to what extent Gardiner at 65 is a different musician to Gardiner at 47; how his thoughts on the central message of the work have alttered over the near two decades that separate the two recordings; how the still-young firebrand of the early-music movement differs from/has grown into/mellowed into the bus-pass-carrying gentleman farmer. Where that earlier recording drove inexorably forwards, this one replaces that occasional relentlessness with urgency: the final movement particularly becomes a heartfelt plea rather than a slow conclusion to a sometimes overlong work.
The soloists too add to this sense of urgency. Matthew Brook may not be the high-cholesterol baritone often favoured in classic recordings of the German Requiem but a hint of reediness in his tone seems appropriate for one yearning to know the measure of his days. Likewise, Katharine Fuge is a less creamy soprano than some great names but again the vulnerability of her tone – notwithstanding the Schwarzkopf gasp mid-phrase before the word ‘Traurigkeit’ – does not seem out of place, considering what she is actually singing about.
The star of the German Requiem, though, is always the choir. You know you’re in safe hands with the Monteverdis and the pitch-perfect top A at 2'04" (a graveyard for many a choral society) absolutely confirms it. They open proceedings with a pair of Schütz choruses setting words Brahms was to use in the Requiem two centuries later and providing the context that was such an integral part of Gardiner’s ‘Brahms: Roots and Memories’ project. Applause is omitted, allowing silent contemplation of the revelation that comes from such a minutely considered, dramatic and, in places, aptly disturbing performance.
Ein deutsches Requiem
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (sop) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bar) Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra / Otto Klemperer
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 566903-2 (69‘ · ADD · T/t). Recorded 1961. Buy from Amazon
Brahms’s A German Requiem, a work of great concentration and spiritual intensity, is rather surprisingly the creation of a man barely 30 years old. Klemperer’s reading of this mighty work has long been famous: rugged, at times surprisingly fleet and with a juggernaut power. The superb Philharmonia is joined by its excellent chorus and two magnificent soloists – Schwarzkopf offering comfort in an endless stream of pure tone and the superb solo contribution from Fischer-Dieskau, still unequalled, taking us closer to the work’s emotional, theological and musical sources than any other. Digital remastering hasn’t entirely eliminated tape noise, but the engineers appear to have encountered few problems with the original tapes. A uniquely revealing account of the work.
Ein deutsches Requiem
Genia Kühmeier (sop) Thomas Hampson (bar) Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
RCA Red Seal 88697 72066-2 (72’· DDD · T/t). Recorded live 2007. Buy from Amazon
Ein deutsches Requiem
Camilla Tilling (sop) Detlef Roth (bar) Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra / Marek Janowski
Pentatone PTC5186 361 (69’· DDD/DSD · T/t). Recorded live 2009. Buy from Amazon
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s expertly engineered Vienna Philharmonic recording of Ein deutsches Requiem is both beautifully shaped (especially from the woodwinds) and devotional in spirit. The closing ‘Selig sind die Toten’ presents a warming richness of texture, the underlying rhythmic pulse admirably clear, while the sombre processional of ‘Denn alles Fleisch’ builds well, the contrasting ‘So seid nun geduldig’ (‘Be patient, therefore’) lightened with the subtlest touch. Thomas Hampson sounds a mite frail in his first solo, though given that knowing one’s frailty is the subject of the text, the effect may well be intentional. For some tastes, Genia Kühmeier may be just a little too operatic in her approach to ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’; the idea of renewed joy needs something a little more serene.
But there’s a richly recorded second version that begs consideration, where Marek Janowski conducts the forces of Berlin Radio with Camilla Tilling and Detlef Roth. Here the choral singing is especially good, while Janowski’s conducting really makes you sit up. The principal draw of his performance is its drama, especially the second climax of ‘Denn alles Fleisch’, which is so much more powerful than the first and significantly more powerful than anyone else’s in this particular batch.
Both recordings stack up well against the existing competition, Janowski scoring highest for immediate impact, Harnoncourt for imagination and for weaving his way beneath and between the notes. Both in their different ways capture the unique spirit of this wonderful work.
Ein deutsches Requiem
Dorothea Röschmann (sop) Thomas Quasthoff (bar) Berlin Radio Chorus; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
EMI 365393-2 (67’ · DDD · T/t). Gramophone Choral Award 2007. Buy from Amazon
This is a lovely performance, sensitive to the work’s consolatory mood, free-moving and sweetly sung. Rattle’s reading does not obscure Brahms’s debt to Schütz, Bach and the other great pre-classical German Protestant composers, but it stresses more the work’s roots in the new German school: to the influence, above all, of Brahms’s cherished and much mourned mentor, Robert Schumann.
This is not a period performance in the sense of attempting to conjure forth period sounds. The opening colloquy for violas and divided cellos is pure Berlin (Nikisch would have recognised the sound, as would the young Karajan). The singing is awed and reverential, with ravishing pianissimos from the superb Berlin Radio Chorus. What we have here is not authenticity of sound but authenticity of feeling and effect. Has there ever been a swifter performance of the fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’, or a more calming one? A flowing tempo which creates a sense of deep repose suggests that most sought-after of all qualities in an interpreter, the art that disguises art.
Throughout, Rattle strikes a shrewd balance between the work’s affective nature and its narrative power. Tempi are brisk in the two movements with baritone solo which carry much of the work’s doctrine. The great choral codas to the second, third and sixth movements are also superbly judged. In the great choral peroration to the penultimate movement, space is provided for the words to tell, as Brahms clearly intends.
Thomas Quasthoff, who seems a little out of sorts, is no match for Fischer-Dieskau on Klemperer’s unignorably splendid recording (reviewed above); and Dorothea Röschmann’s reedy tone and tight vibrato in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ may not appeal either. Still, the movement is so persuasively shaped that, heard in context, it, too, ‘speaks’ to us through the sonic squall. Internal balances between choir, soloists and orchestra are generally well judged: apt to a performance which treats this great memorial prose poem with a mixture of acumen and affection that is entirely special.
Ein deutsches Requiem (London Version)
Sandrine Piau (sop) Stéphane Degout (bar) Boris Berezovsky, Brigitte Engerer (pfs) Accentus Chamber Choir / Laurence Equilbey
Naïve V4956 (65’ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
It was in Wimpole Street in 1871, at the home of a leading surgeon and his musical wife, that the London first performance of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem was given, two years before it was introduced to the British public at large and with orchestral scoring. The arrangement for piano duet was the composer’s own, made at the urgent request of his publisher. The occasion was essentially a domestic one, with a small invited audience, piano duettists and singers who, having sung of all flesh being grass, would doubtless have found cold meats laid out for them in the dining room and a glass of wine to refresh the spirits.
This recording successfully presents the Requiem as chamber music. An earlier performance on Opus 111 suggested a final piano rehearsal, the orchestra being expected next week. Here the piano part is played on two instruments, achieving a far more satisfying musical finish. The playing is sensitive, with a singing tone most of the time, and a keen ear for the differentiation between parts or melodic strands. Sandrine Piau is clear-toned and well in control after a slightly tremulous start; Stéphane Degout, a fine baritone, isn’t particularly expressive here but admirable in quality and phrasing. The choir sing with fresh, well-matched tones and care for detail. Choice of tempo seems unerringly right: that is but one of many reasons we have to be grateful to Laurence Equilbey, the conductor.
Ein deutsches Requiem
Gundula Janowitz (sop) José van Dam (bass-bar) Vienna Singverein; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan
Video director Herbert von Karajan
DG 073 4398GH (79’ · NTSC · 4:3 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0). Recorded live in Salzburg in March 1978. Buy from Amazon
You can see the Vienna Singverein in this Easter Festival performance spaced across the back of the Felsenreitschule, but the sound mix – supervised by Karajan – mingles them with the orchestra to an intriguing and unprecendented extent. The result is quite different from the closely communicative German Requiem recently recorded by Simon Rattle (reviewed above).
Sometimes one feels it has been done to spare the chorus, or spare us from them. There are too many occasions on which the orchestra comes in after an a cappella section and finds the chorus has dropped by a fraction to take the performance entirely seriously. But there is also much to admire and even love here: the relatively swift outer movements, the genuinely awe-ful Marschmässig at the start of ‘Denn alles Fleisch’, and the genteel, beneficent relaxation of its interlude, like peasants by Poussin – and you could feel the character of text, sound and interpretation even with the sound off, just as Karajan’s hands build, mould and then smother a conflagration on the same movement’s final chord.
The tempo for the third movement is slow for the vocal lines – José van Dam is nobly stentorian – but perfect for the minatory dialogue between timpani and horns and its subsequent, syncopated fragmentation. Janowitz achieves the communion in her movement that had been shaped with these performers many times, but, as ever in Karajan’s interpretation of the Requiem, the sixth movement never recovers from its pedantic opening trudge, and is not improved by a cussedly obtrusive electric organ. Stepping over this Achilles heel, however, this is a loving document of a work, time and place.